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Enlightened affirmative action is the key

Ramnath Narayanaswamy

To create a humane, inclusive society, public policy must be perceived to be fair, open and transparent. Reservation is not the best means to achieve social equity in a developing country. A more enlightened affirmative action is the need of the hour.

The Government's move to reserve an additional 27 per cent seats in institutes of higher education for backward classes has elicited widespread protest. The core issue is surely about creating a humane, caring and inclusive society. For that, public policy must be perceived to be fair, open and transparent. Reservation is not the best means to achieve social equity in a developing country. It is neither fair, equitable nor transparent. Yet, there is no gainsaying that we need affirmative action.

For, decades after Independence, India still has 70 million destitutes, and double that number of very poor.Clearly, the challenge in terms of public policy is compellingly clear: Increasing the range of social, economic and cultural opportunity, so that the less fortunate can be co-opted into the economic mainstream. But is reservation the answer?

Flawed policy

Our practice of reservation has been deeply flawed. The discourses tend to be schizophrenic, populist and self-serving. As is the lip service we pay to "equality and social justice;" the economic model we followed in the first four decades of Independence did justice to neither.

It embodied the rather curious idea that the best way of protecting the weak lay in restricting the growth of the strong. As a result, the economy did not produce enough to help those who needed to be helped.

Few will disagree that the practice of reservation has not been salutary. This is because it (a) promotes caste identity at the expense of national identity, (b) embeds in the beneficiaries that it is a hereditary and transferable "property right", (c) generates a dependency syndrome among the "creamy" layer whose self-interest prompts it to deny the facility to the more deserving within its own group, (d) lowers performance standards in favour of extra-professional considerations and, critically, (e) does not benefit those who deserve it the most.

Sociologists view caste dominance in terms of three parameters — economic, political and cultural (this includes social). What makes reservations particularly complex is the fact there are many castes that are weak vis--vis one parameter but strong on others, and vice-versa.

The answer

What is to be done? Clearly, the answer lies in making a transition from caste affiliations to class considerations. Affirmative action must be applied to the very poor regardless of their caste.

Affirmative action is not just about reservation: it includes gender equality, dispensing credit among the rural poor, and building competencies among people.

Reservation of seats is not the answer. The real challenge lies in providing quality education, dramatically increasing the salaries of teachers in the rural areas and improving infrastructure in schools in partnership with industry. This is the need of the hour.

According to a recent survey, in 2020, India will have the largest number of illiterates in the world. A teaching career, disturbingly, is the last option in the minds of youth today.

It is disheartening that no Indian university figures among the top hundred of the world. The solace, though, is that several IIMs figure in the top hundred business schools and several IITs figure in the top hundred technology schools.

The Government must appoint a panel of experts to study the results of reservation and look at what went right and what was wrong. This panel must suggest ways and means of rectifying those errors.

Reservation on the basis of caste must be abolished and substituted with income criteria. Reservation may be extended to the very poor but not on a hereditary basis.

Shortage of teachers

Clear accountability mechanisms that are fair and transparent must be put in place. Reservation should not, for example, be treated as a free job. Once a beneficiary enters the job market, he or she is bound by the discipline that the market typically tends to impose. Non-performance means unemployment.

All IIMs practice reservation. This year in IIM Bangalore, the figure will be 25.5 per cent. Also, students from reserved categories are called three weeks earlier and coached in English, statistics and quantitative techniques for six hours a day. They are not charged for either their lodging or tuition. This has been the practice for decades. IIMs also provide scholarships to needy students. The amount disbursed last year was Rs 75 lakh; no deserving student is denied the opportunity to excel.

All IIMs face genuine difficulties in recruiting faculty. Apart from attractive compensation and infrastructure, the country does face a real shortage of teachers and this needs to be addressed urgently.

This means we need to invest in our doctoral programmes. We need more teachers if we are to take more students. It is important to keep these facts in mind given the ill-informed opinions that dominate the public domain.

(The author is a Professor at IIM, Bangalore.)

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